Anna Klineberg | Class of ’17 | February 18th, 2016
Imagine a family: a mother, a father, two to three kids. They live in a home with two bedrooms, and a small yard out back. When the family walks outside, they have a straight view of the industrial plants and chemical factories that run their neighborhood and the many communities surrounding it. Their house is not very expensive. The area surrounding their neighborhood is completely barren, except for the massive chemical plants that the family can see from every angle of their community. There are a few corner stores on the main road, but generally, the neighborhood is not manicured. The closest place to buy fresh fruits and vegetables is six miles away. The children get sick easily, which makes it difficult for the parents to take time off of work. The family knows they cannot drink the water from the tap, because they have been told by other community members that it made their families ill. Now I ask you: what race/ethnicity was this family you imagined?
Frequently, people are unaware of the multiple impacts that the environment can have on health. The term “environmental racism” has been in the media for decades, but few understand its implications. Environmental racism is the act in which low-income or minority communities are placed in close proximity to environmentally hazardous locations. In order to dispel any rumors, yes, environmental racism is present in many different communities around the world, and even within our backyards in the United States. As Crowder and Downey (2010) have discussed, socioeconomic resource accessibility and racial differences are incredibly apparent when comparing neighborhoods within close proximity to environmental hazards. Even when socioeconomic resources are controlled for, the racial discrepancies in proximity to hazardous pollution zones are staggering. So why do minorities end up residing within these unsafe areas of urban decay? Environmental racism. With restrictive housing markets and low incomes paired with high levels of discrimination and stratification, minorities succumb to the cheaper options. As Crowder and Downey note, these hazardous conditions not only contribute to racial inequalities, but can contribute to a variety of disparities, including those of educational success, social order (immobility), and physical and psychological health. Now, does this not sound like that family of five I was discussing earlier?
As a white female from Washington D.C, access is an idea that I have never had to question. In my neighborhood growing up, I always had access to produce, to playgrounds, to massive grocery chains, to quality education, and to plenty of friends in the same position as me. However, little did I know how much my external environment, combined with social and economic factors, were influencing my life. It was not until my internship at CAN DO Houston where I truly understood these impacts. In Houston, the grassroots community-based nonprofit organization CAN DO works to alleviate these problems within low-income areas. Through environmental and policy changes, the organization strives to provide individuals within these “food desert” communities with equal access to opportunities to be healthy. Food deserts are areas in which people are socially marginalized and have little to no access to affordable, healthy food.
Similar to environmental racism, these individual environments with food deserts are everywhere, but hidden to the general population in many respects because they are characterized by similar discrepancies in race and income. Without access to large supermarkets, Powell et al. (2006) explains that healthier options are largely nonexistent, and pose a problem for adverse dietary patterns and eventually obesity and diabetes. Corner stores become grocery stores, in which individuals stock up on Cheetos and Hostess cupcakes instead of carrots and apples. The presence of this environmental segregation is even more apparent when considering the density of fast food restaurants. Kwate (2008) explores how neighborhoods concentrated with blackness and poverty tend to have a higher prevalence of fast-food restaurants. Therefore, it is much “easier” to purchase cheaper food items like fried chicken versus fresh apples, which can be located miles away from any nearby fast-food restaurant. From this perspective, the health disparities just grow, catapulting low-income minorities to one side of the spectrum, and the affluent white majority to the other end of the spectrum.
Although environmental policy changes can include areas of pollution control, it is equally important to consider the socioenvironmental factors that shape societies. One of CAN DO’s core missions is to eliminate these environmental barriers to healthy eating and living. Therefore, in this sense, the environment includes grocery stores in neighborhoods, access to gardening lands, and even something as simple as sidewalks. At CAN DO, we have implemented an initiative called Healthy Corner Stores, where we provide community members with healthier food options, which are both affordable and easily accessible through the corner store network that these community members frequent on a daily basis. Community environments, like these corner stores, need to be altered to order to facilitate healthy lifestyle choices. By understanding community interaction with their environments, organizations like CAN DO are able to make direct and sustainable changes. Without direct environmental changes, health disparities grow. Whether it be a result of pollution and environmental racism or fast-food restaurants and income segregation, the family described at the beginning will continue to struggle for generations to improve their health. Without policy changes, this family will develop diseases like cancer and obesity, affecting their lineage for years to come. As Kwate (2008) describes, if segregation continues, so will inequalities related to health, individual and neighborhood socioeconomic status, educational opportunities, employment, housing quality, medical care, and disproportionate use for hazardous land (35). Wouldn’t you like to see change if you were a part of this family? Fundamental risks are only resolved from a standpoint of fundamental change.